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What Women Need to Know About Social Security and Divorce

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Estimating income and expenses is one of the most crucial steps in building a viable, long-term retirement plan, so having an accurate representation of how your social security benefits will fit into that picture is essential. Maximizing benefits is especially important for divorced women whose ex-spouse’s benefits may trump their own, ultimately providing a higher guaranteed income for the duration of their retirement years.

Since the days of its inception, the Social Security Administration has provided that ex-spouses have claiming rights to their previous spouse’s benefit amount so long as the basic requirements are met. While some rules have changed in the past decade, the fundamentals for eligibility remain the same:

  • The marriage lasted for at least 10 consecutive years.
  • Both ex-spouses are age 62 or older (note that there is a reduction in benefits for starting at age 62 rather than waiting until Full Retirement Age).
  • The claiming ex-spouse is not remarried.
  • The marriage must have been terminated for at least 2 years before starting benefits.

When the above conditions are satisfied, a divorced spouse will be entitled to one-half of their ex-spouse’s full retirement age benefit regardless if the primary worker has begun claiming their benefits or not.

Maximizing Spousal Benefits

Due to the income wage gap between genders and the fact that women statistically obtain fewer working years than their male counterparts (most often to fulfill familial caretaking responsibilities outside the workforce), it is frequently in a divorced woman’s best interest to check and see if spousal benefits outweigh her personal benefit. And since divorced spouses cannot claim the cumulative total of both their own benefit and spousal benefits, a divorcee will need to do some research to uncover which benefit provides the larger monthly allowance for supplementing their total retirement income.

With more and more women in the workforce earning higher incomes than ever before, though, this scenario may not remain the same for women of younger generations. For women of the baby boomer generation and those that precede it, though, claiming an ex-spouse’s benefit is often the beneficial choice.

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Technically there are two options for claiming benefits, but only if you were born before January 2, 1954. Individuals born prior to this date can choose to advantage of a strategy known as “Filing a Restricted Application.” With this strategy, an individual claims a divorced spouse benefit at full retirement age while their individual benefit accrues delayed credits until age 70, at which point the retiree then switches to their higher individual benefit for the remainder of their lifetime.

However, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 put an end to this tactic for anyone not grandfathered in by the birthdate above.

For the remainder of individuals, this “Restricted Application” option is no longer available. When a divorced spouse born after January 2, 1954 files for social security benefits, he or she is beginning the claiming process for any and all benefits for which he or she is eligible—personal and spousal alike.  But outside of the requirements listed above, there is nothing  to hinder an individual from claiming the higher benefit of the two.

Claiming Survivor Benefits

To some women’s surprise, ex-spouses are also entitled to survivor benefits should their previous husband pass away. And not only is the surviving spouse able to claim their 50% spousal benefit, they are also able to claim a widow or widower’s benefit.

In effect, the surviving spouse can receive 100% of the primary worker’s allotted Primary Insurance Amount (PIA) benefit if all of the following requirements are met:

  • The marriage lasted for 10 years.
  • The ex-spouse passed away.
  • The divorcee remains unmarried (or did not remarry until after age 60).

Surviving ex-spouses are eligible to begin claiming benefits at age 60, at which point they can choose to (a) begin claiming benefits at a reduced rate or (b) wait until their own full retirement age and receive 100% of their ex-spouse’s benefit amount.

Keep in mind though, that survivor benefits work much in the same way that spousal benefits do—only the higher of the survivor or personal benefit will be paid (not both).

Taking the Next Step

Each year millions of divorced women near retirement are charged with the task of determining how to maximize their social security benefits in order that they may optimize their retirement income. Determining the best course of action amidst the myriad other retirement considerations may not always be easy to tackle alone.

At Northstar Financial Planning, we know that finances and social security benefits are only a couple of the many financial concerns to take into account when preparing for retirement. If you think you may need assistance putting together a timeline for maximizing social security benefits, or are looking for a trusted ally with whom to enter into this major life transition, contact us today for a complimentary Get Acquainted meeting to discuss your opportunities for a fruitful and rewarding retirement.


  1. If you remarry, you are not eligible for your ex-spouse’s spousal benefits. If you are remarried and divorced, though, you can choose which ex-spouse’s benefits from which you wish to claim (assuming all other requirements are also met).
  2. Note that the dollar amount a divorcee receives will have no impact on the amount the ex-spouse receives.
  3. Benefit amount reduced if worker claimed early at at 62, increased if worker delayed until age 70.

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